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Steve Hackett - Highly Strung CD (album) cover

HIGHLY STRUNG

Steve Hackett

 

Eclectic Prog

2.94 | 170 ratings

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tarkus1980
Prog Reviewer
3 stars This album isn't really that much better than Cured, but at least it sounds finished. This time around, Steve actually bothered to put together a full band around himself, with actual drums and everything; there's no chance of confusing the material of this album with demos. It also helps that Steve clearly put in a lot of practice over the previous year towards improving his singing; he's nothing great, but he sounds competent and self-assured, which is a big step in the right direction (even if his choices in how to apply his vocals don't thrill me). This album also shows a clear new direction for Steve, one that at least had some potential; the music is based in synth pop, but it's synth pop with some power, some variance in mood, and some guitar work that definitely has its own personality. The album, largely courtesy of the three instrumentals, but also from some of the instrumental breaks in the songs with vocals, shows Steve trying to present himself as sort of a bridge between past values and contemporary values, and this is definitely the kind of general approach I'd like to see from Steve Hackett.

It's too bad, then, that a large chunk of the album really isn't that good. The first two instrumentals are a letdown on the whole (the third, "Hackett to Pieces," is basically just a reprise of ideas from earlier in the album); they each have some nice guitar work, of course, and they have multiple ideas combined with each other, but these are pieces where I hear a lot less in the way of inspiration and atmosphere than I've gotten used to with Hackett instrumentals. For all of the craft and professionalism contained within these, I end up treating them as muzak, and that's not a label I like to attach to music from Hackett. The synths get pretty overbearing, too, especially in "Group Therapy." It's a shame that Steve didn't even bother to throw on an acoustic piece for good measure.

The actual songs have some low points among them, too. "Give it Away" is mediocre even by the standards of faceless early 80s up-tempo synth pop; there's a decent simple guitar lick buried in there, but even that isn't notable compared to the sorts of things Steve had come up with already. "Weightless" is a slow number that might be a little bit better, but there are no hooks to speak of (look, I don't want to judge Hackett by hooks if I can avoid it, but with this kind of music that's the main positive criteria, and he fails here by those standards), and the song makes no impression other than "yup, those are a lot of synths and I don't know where the guitar is."

Fortunately, the other four songs are quite good. I will admit, it's kinda hard for me to make a strong defense for "Walking Through Walls" when I don't like either of the tracks that come after it, but even if it's driven forward by the most primitive of beats, it also has that great keyboard tone, and I genuinely like Steve's singing here. What can I say, when judging generic 80s tracks, sometimes things come down to relatively minor details. Don't forget about the extended single version in the bonus tracks, either.

The opening "Camino Royale," as would be revealed years later, actually has a loose Genesis connection; it has its roots in a dream Steve had where Genesis was singing a song with this song's chorus. Mind you, the chorus is probably the worst part; "Only the fool learns to get through" strikes me as a silly phrase, and Steve's voice, on its own, isn't quite up to the task of giving the phrase any resonance. Then again, the music of the chorus (both the chord sequence and the vocal melody itself) is quite nice, and it makes for a good balance to the music of the rest of the song. The opening instrumental passage would have fit in perfectly on Yes' 90125 a year later, and I mean that as a compliment; the inspired (though clearly 80s) guitar playing, the strong keyboards (with tones hearkening back a few years) and the mildly tricky rhythms would feel perfectly at home next to "It Can Happen" or "Changes." The main portion of the song is fun, too, with Steve putting his vocals in a very low register as he sings over a weirdly atmospheric bit that has tinges of Latin and jazz rhythms without any of those individual influences dominating. For what it's worth, Steve once went on record as saying this is his best song, and while I don't quite agree with this, I can see the argument.

The other two tracks couldn't really be much more different, but they're each quite nice. "Cell 151" is borderline epic as far as conventional synth pop goes; the song is dominated by the slow pounding beat, but Steve's vocals provide an atmosphere of desperation not really found in other songs of his, and he does a better job of weaving his guitar in with the synths here than on other tracks on the album. Plus, I rather like the extended instrumental coda (which, granted, largely borrows ideas from "Camino Royale"); there's definitely more drive and power here than in the purely instrumental tracks. And kudos to Steve for managing to get a minor hit single out of this; for all of the elements that don't jump out of their way to make the track accessible to a large audience, the track still works as a pop song.

And finally, there's a lovely gem tucked into the second half, the quiet, borderline ambient, blink-and-you-might-miss-it "India Rubber Man." Fans of Steve looking for a connection back to his 70s work will find comfort here; the quiet, gentle atmosphere of so much of Spectral Mornings is on full display here, thanks to the way Steve's vocals are muffled and the way the keyboards are layered on top of them. Plus, Steve breaks out his harmonica once again, and the effect is magical in much the same way that, say, the harmonica bits in "Cabinessence" (yup, the Beach Boys song) were magical.

Basically, there's about half of a really good album on here, and about half of a pretty bad one too. I slightly lean in a positive direction when putting all of them on the ledger, if only because the instrumental tracks from the worse half are completely listenable, but I definitely can't give this a strong recommendation. If you can get the best tracks from here without getting the entire album, try to do so.

tarkus1980 | 3/5 |

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